Levison Wood has skirted death in war-torn South Sudan, woken up in the house of a Mujahidin fighter in Afghanistan and hitchhiked to Baghdad in the midst of an invasion, but his toughest challenge yet? Posing for camera crews while filming the Channel 4 hit Walking the Nile.
Two years ago, few people outside of the outdoor community had heard of Levison Wood. But then he flew to Rwanda and began a nine-month, 4,000-mile hike along the world’s longest river and the world took notice.
Shoot forwards to 2015 and he’s been dubbed ‘ten times tougher than Bear Grylls’, scored dozens of national newspaper interviews and even fronted his own TV show, redefining the adventure travel documentary format with his visceral and authentic approach. So let’s find out more about his expeditions, close escapes and what the future holds…
What first made you want to go travelling?
Since the age of 13, I was keen on adventure and wanted to join the army. I read books by explorers and so remote places especially appealed to me. I also thought seeing some of the world on my own would be good practice for army life, so in my gap year I travelled through South Africa and Zimbabwe. At university, I hitchhiked back from Egypt via Baghdad, in the midst of the ’03 invasion.
Travelling alone in war-torn countries must have had some tricky moments?
For the most part, I was young enough not to really know or care. But it was brought home to me on the ancient Silk Road trail after university when I was following in the footsteps of the explorer Arthur Conolly. I woke one morning in the middle of Afghanistan, in the house of an opium-smuggling former Mujahidin fighter. I just thought: “What the hell am I doing?” I’m a lot less reckless these days. Truly!
You served in the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan. Did the army teach you anything that you’ve found useful as an explorer?
The army gives you more than just a set of credible skills; it gives you self-confidence. You know that if you put your mind to it you can do most things.
How did the idea for the Nile trek come about?
Well it wasn’t so much the Nile to start with, it was the idea of doing a bloody big trip that would test me to the absolute limit – and in a place that I was passionate about. I had a short list of three or four journeys I wanted to do, but there’s something about the Nile that has always attracted explorers and as it had never been walked before, I decided to give it a try.
You had to detour around a dangerous trouble spot in South Sudan. Did you consider walking through the war zone?
There was a lot of deliberation about it, but as the civil war had kicked off two weeks before I arrived, there was no real intelligence about what was really going on. Nobody was leaving the capital Juba and everyone said I couldn’t go any further. I went as far as Bor, arriving two hours after the local Dinka militia had stormed the UN base and killed 60 people and there was still fighting in the street. That in itself didn’t put me off: I’ve been to places where things were kicking off but with enough money, charm and willpower you can get a long way. In South Sudan it meant I’d have to cross two front lines and 400 miles of lawless territory. Ultimately, I had to think of my guides and their families. So I went around. It was a shame but it wasn’t worth the risk of jeopardising lives.
What is your approach when meeting people on the trail?
A big grin and a handshake go a long way, although having a guide who can speak the language is obviously a big advantage. What I’ve found is that all over the world, people are pretty similar and are interested in similar things, so I try to establish a rapport as quickly as possible. It’s a simple as that. You can’t expect anything from anyone, so you just need to be aware that anything can happen.
How have you found being a high-profile adventurer since your Channel 4 TV series, and the inevitable comparison with other TV survival experts?
When the Nile series went on the telly, I had no idea if it would be well received. If Channel 4 had scheduled the series in a late-night midweek slot we probably wouldn’t be speaking right now! Its success was an enormous surprise to me and I’m still getting used to it.
Why do you think it worked so well? Was your low-key approach
a nice contrast to other more highly produced survival/adventure series?
It was the authenticity of it I think. I was doing the trip anyway and got Channel 4 interested in coming along for the ride so it wasn’t set up for TV. That rawness comes across in the series and it seems to work because you see things you wouldn’t usually find in documentaries.
Have advances in filming technology helped you to get a quality and quantity of film footage that would have been more difficult only a few years back?
Definitely. The technology has advanced so much that, without blowing my own trumpet, it’s not easy to see the join between my footage and the crew’s. Which is great because you can go off on your own and still get some high-quality footage. To be honest though, filming was a pain in the arse. It’s time-consuming and frustrating. I wanted to get from A to B as efficiently as possible and not have to walk past the camera ten times!
Do you get satisfaction from taking viewers on a vicarious journey through a part of the world they’re unlikely ever to visit?
I get many messages from people who have enjoyed seeing and hearing about my experiences. One of the best was from the head of a South Sudan NGO who said that it was great that South Sudan, despite the outbreaks of fighting, had finally got some positive profile, because they felt ignored by the rest of the world. So I like giving an insight into life in countries dismissed with the label ‘respect and avoid’.
Secret Compass, the adventure expedition company you founded, seems to take people to parts of the world not necessarily thought safe or desirable to go to. Isn’t there a danger that this will backfire one day?
People who get it, get it; people who don’t, don’t. What I mean is that since the 2008 crash, more people are seeking meaning and experience from their holidays, rather than just ‘a break’. Our kind of adventure travel is visiting places that aren’t on the tourist trail and showing people how satisfying that can be. We have no interest in promoting ‘war-tourism’ or putting people in danger, it’s about challenging stereotypes. Sierra Leone, for example, is not all Ebola and civil war; it’s actually a really nice place, for the most part. We’ve been called into the Foreign Office a couple of times to explain ourselves and once we have, and they see we’ve been very thorough on our risk assessments and planning, they’ve been fine.
What sorts of people sign up to a Secret Compass trip?
It’s a vast range – not just blokes in quarter or midlife crisis – and it’s pretty much a 50-50 split of men and women too. People really only need a good level of fitness and the right attitude. We always speak to people before a trip so they know what they’re taking on.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to make a career from adventure exploration?
I get asked this a lot and I have to say it’s not easy. There were several times when I nearly gave up and got a ‘proper job’. When I left the army I knew what I wanted to do, but I spent three years with no money and sleeping on sofas at mates’ houses in between expeditions. Travelling was actually cheaper than paying rent. And it plays havoc with your social life. So if it’s not clear yet, you need real persistence and some luck.
PHOTOS: Tom McShane